For a number of reasons, including some incredibly myopic management on the part of the late Don Arden, this is generally identified as the absolute nadir of the Black Sabbath story, as well as Tony Iommi’s career. Over the 1983 – 1985 period, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler drifted away from Sabbath, following in the footsteps of Ian Gillan (their third lead singer), and spent the rest of the 1980s amongst solo projects, addiction problems, and the occasional, but ultimately unsuccessful Sabbath reunion.
Tony Iommi sought to record a solo album in 1986 away from the Black Sabbath brand, and recruited ex-Trapeze and Deep Purple man Glenn Hughes on lead vocals, and an undistinguished backing band including future Kiss drummer Eric Singer. Aside from Glenn Hughes’ soulboy tendencies and the other members’ lack of reputation, this was by no means Black Sabbath. The music was closer to Iommi’s blues roots than Sabbath had been, and there was a fair smattering of power balladry amongst the material. The music felt closer in spirit to Eric Clapton or Robin Trower than the prototypal heavy metal act. Nevertheless, Don Arden decreed that it must be labelled a Black Sabbath album, and the rather awkward moniker ‘Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi’ was settled on. Naturally, the album was panned by fans and critics alike. The tour, in no small part to Hughes’ ongoing drug problems was a disaster, and the Black Sabbath legend never quite recovered.
After 25 years, it seems fair to revisit the album, put all thoughts of contractual foul-ups aside, and take a fresh listen to the music. It is in fact, fairly good. Far better than 25 years of reviews and anecdotes would have you believe. “Heart Like a Wheel” is a strong bluesy number, with Iommi blending time-honoured blues licks with his own evil trademark sound. Hughes’ background of soul and blues makes for perfect accompaniment, and tracks like this shed an entirely new light on Iommi, who doesn’t often get the credit for his own blues credentials.
The lead single “No Stranger to Love” is somewhat ‘of it’s time’, but as it was so unfairly ignored in it’s own time, I’m happy to give it some space in 2011. A gentle, slumbering rock track along the lines of a Whitesnake power ballad, but again, it’s Hughes who makes the difference between this recording and the many hundreds of landfill AOR rock albums that contaminated the mid-1980s.
Keyboardist Geoff Nicholls takes centre stage towards the end with “Sphinx (The Guardian)”, a haunting synth instrumental that makes way for the album’s final track, “Turn to Stone”, which is happily remindful of the “Mob Rules” era, with its quick tempo and soaring vocal lines. I’m not sure Glenn Hughes is the ideal voice for this one – It needs Ronnie James Dio ideally, but in keeping with the general theme of the album, they made the best of a less than ideal situation.
This isn’t in the top five Black Sabbath albums, but by no means does it deserve to be ignored. A new two CD deluxe edition combines the original album with some inessential live tracks. The 2004 edition of the album proper currently sells for around £5, which is a fair price for a fair album.